No Woman Born: A Study in Character

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As I continue reading Science Fiction 101, more and more wonderful ideas keep popping up that I think make for great blog posts. Last night I finished reading "No Woman Born" by C.L. Moore, a novella written in 1944 about a famous actress and performer, Deirdre, who dies in a fire but whose brain is saved by the scientist Maltzer. He creates a robotic body to house the brain, effectively bringing Deirdre back to life. The story looks at how Deirdre adjusts to her new body and then goes back on stage to resume her place as America's sweetheart.

The whole thing has a very Frankenstein-esque feel to it, which is just great.

"No Woman Born" represented a new kind of sci-fi writing at the time, something more character-driven than plot-driven, and with a female protagonist. (C.L. Moore is actually Catherine Lucille Moore.)

The put-er-together-er of the collection, Robert Silverberg, hypothesizes that this is mainly because of C.L. Moore's incredible talent and because she was a woman. He writes:

“Until fairly recent times women were not a visible presence on the science-fiction scene. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein of 1818 can legitimately be considered the first true science-fiction novel of the modern era, but few women followed her lead. When science fiction emerged as a popular commercial form early in the twentieth century, it was written and edited almost entirely by men, for a largely male audience...Because science fiction in the first half of the twentieth century was written mainly by and for male readers, most of what was published tended to be either male-oriented action fiction or the bloodless, emotionless, wiring-diagram fiction of the Hugo Gernsback school.”

(Note: Hugo Gernsback was the publisher of the first sci-fi magazine, Amazing Stories. The Hugo Awards are named after him.)

Silverberg further agrees in his comment on the story that it shows how compelling a story can be even with very minimal action. This is because the author delves deep into the psyches of Deirdre, Maltzer and the narrator, Harris.

“What carries the story, then, is neither the intricacy of its plot nor the swiftness of its events. Moore’s psychological insight, manifested in supple and graceful writing, is what hold’s the reader’s interest.”

Here's an example of such a passage from the story:

“The human brain is often too complicated a mechanism to function perfectly. Harris’ brain was called upon now to perform a very elaborate series of shifting impressions. First, incongruously, he remembered a curious inhuman figure he had once glimpsed leaning over the fence rail outside a farmhouse. For an instant the shape had stood up integrated, ungainly, impossibly human, before the glancing eye resolved it into an arrangement of brooms and buckets. What the eye had found only roughly humanoid, the suggestible brain had accepted fully formed. It was thus now, with Deirdre.

The first impression that his eyes and mind took from sight of her was shocked and incredulous, for his brain said to him unbelievingly, ‘This is Deirdre! She hasn’t changed at all!’

Then the shift of perspective took over, and even more shockingly, eye and brain said, ‘No, not Deirdre-not human. Nothing but metal coils. Not Deirdre at all-‘ And that was the worst. It was like waking from a dream of someone beloved and lost, and facing anew, after that heartbreaking reassurance of sleep, that inflexible fact that nothing can bring the lost to life again. Deirdre was gone, and this was only machinery heaped in a flowered chair.”

This is the style of writing throughout the novella, and I find it extremely compelling. Indeed, very few scene changes occur and most of the story takes place in a living room, but it's still a page-turner.

I've read a few novels of the literary fiction genre, which are also mostly about the inner lives of the characters, and for the most part I can't stand them, because nothing ever seems to happen. I enjoy the balance between action and character. But I think "No Woman Born" shows that shockingly little movement can happen in a story that remains nonetheless interesting and packed with drama, simply because the premise is so dramatic and the writing so wonderful.

In the foreword to Science Fiction 101, Silverberg explains one of the basic characteristics of science fiction:

“An underlying speculative concept, systematically developed in a way that amounts to an exploration of the consequences of allowing such a departure from known reality to impinge on the universe as we know it.”

I absolutely love this and it's one of the main reasons I love science fiction. If we start here, then a story need not be action-packed. It can be highly thoughtful and deliberate while still compelling because we are exploring consequences. And how do we best explore consequences? Through the lives of characters we can relate to.

This all seems to go against what Silverberg writes earlier in the book, that characterization can sometimes be an impediment in science fiction. Of course, if you're writing a 1,000-word story, you don't really have room for that. But in the novellas collected in the book, there is most definitely room for that and it's necessary I'd argue. Yes, we're exploring the consequences of a speculative concept, but as I said, the best way we do that in stories is through the lives of our chosen characters.

Anyhoo, that's all for now. I'll certainly write a review of the whole collection once I've finished reading it. So far, only the first story didn't appeal to me, but the rest have been superb so far. It's so interesting to dive into sci-fi of the early twentieth century as I make my way through the best the genre has to offer.

Ciao for now!

Book 16: I, Robot